By ERICH WAGNER
ANNAPOLIS (March 6, 2009)—Public campaign finance gained a powerful new ally in Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, who stood with fellow lawmakers and advocacy groups at a press conference Friday in support of the voluntary system for state elections.
Miller previously opposed similar proposals, but the rapidly rising cost of campaigns led him to work with fellow sponsor Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's, to improve the campaign finance process, he said.
The bill would establish a voluntary check-off on state income tax forms to contribute $5 to the public election fund starting in 2011 for the 2014 campaigns. In addition, $5 million in unused money from the gubernatorial public campaign finance fund would be transferred to the pool for General Assembly elections, Pinsky said.
Proponents anticipate raising $1 million per year through the tax check-off, making the total projected funds available for the 2014 campaign $9 million. A commission would also be formed to figure out how to continue funding the program for future elections.
In all, a candidate for a contested Senate seat would receive $100,000 between the primary and general election. A House candidate in a contested district would receive up to $80,000.
Candidates could opt for public financing by obtaining 350 private donations of $5, plus an extra $6,750 in fund raising. In the case of candidates who choose to rely solely on private donations, individual campaign donation limits would increase from $4,000 to $4,400, and political action committee donations would increase from $6,000 to $6,600.
If the bill passes, Maryland would be the fourth state to enact public financing of campaigns.
Miller described the bill as a result of years of discussion and compromise between himself and Pinsky.
"There have been concessions on both sides," Miller said. "I wanted a lot more [in private donation increases] than is contained in this bill, and they beat me down."
Pinsky said the bill would "level the playing field" in election campaigns, enabling people who can't necessarily afford to campaign to run for office.
"For the public, for the voters, for the electoral process, I think it's going to benefit and hopefully instill and re-instill confidence in public government and public service," Pinsky said.
Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, called the bill a "hard compromise."
"Deadlock on this issue year after year after year doesn't do anyone any good," O'Donnell said. "It doesn't help any real people outside of Annapolis."
Republicans said they would have to look at the details of the bill before making any judgments.
"I've been told now that it might be first-come, first-serve," said Senate Minority Leader Allan Kittleman, R-Carroll. "I'm a little concerned about that, because then there might be some efforts to get it to certain people faster than other people, and maybe we need to look at trying to make sure whatever money there is is evenly distributed."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.